The Wireless Obsession

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 22 June 2005

Are there times when going wireless is just plain pointless? Rushkoff’s extended battle with Wireless Obsessive Dissorder.

I think I may have gone a little insane last month. Sure, it had a lot to do with that crazy conference I attended in Puerto Rico. But it probably had more to do with the fact that I’ve become obsessed with doing things wirelessly – even when they shouldn’t be done that way. I’m looking for wireless solutions to pretty much every problem in my life. And sometimes, it’s just the long way towards a goal that could have been reached more easily, and even less expensively, by giving up and plugging in.

Take the hotel in Puerto Rico. This was one of those deluxe resorts for both vacationers and businesspeople, so I would have expected the ol’ DSL or 802.11 in the room. No luck. Just a desk phone with a modem port. Hotel phone surcharges being what they are, I opted for my favorite personal wireless solution: the gorgeously seamless Macintosh OS X Bluetooth to Sony Ericsson phone.

Easy enough, until I discover that T-Mobile doesn’t have coverage at this resort. My second cell phone, my Verizon Motorola (with a good 90 minutes of battery life per charge) has four beautiful bars of reception. Alas, no Bluetooth, and nothing seamlessly Mac-compatible on Verizon phones, yet, but I whip out my handy PC-only USB adapter, fire up a secretly available modem driver for the Mac, and figure I’m in business.

But the phone has a weird little E on its display near the top. What could that mean? “Extended Area,” which translates into “big surcharges.” Seems the resort has its own cell tower, and charges Verizon a fee to use it. So Verizon passes the surcharge onto the user.

Of course, all my figuring and cost analysis is simply to avoid plugging my phone into the little modem port that they’ve provided, and paying the two-dollar surcharge for dialing a toll-free call with my AT&T card. So, I give up and plug in. 56k baud ain’t so bad, and I’m online. So why does this make me feel so terrible?

Because I’m Wireless Obsessed. I still think of wireless as a way of beating the system: those expensive exclusive-access wires that seem to run the world. Wireless is my way of leapfrogging old technologies and the monopolies that run them. It’s a symbolic victory every time I circumvent another hardwired network. But this quest for the rush of victory has its price.

For example, my wife and I are in the midst of major renovation on an apartment we hope to move into next month. As someone who hates Verizon and all baby bells for the punishment they inflicted on me since my first phone line in college, I am determined to avoid any connection to their network or billing system for the rest of my life.

The ideal answer: direct dish satellite TV with internet access, and voice-over-IP telephony. I could taste it. Route the dish to a wireless hub and feed data to everything else in the house - computers, TV, telephone, and stereo. But no! The building doesn’t allow for dishes or antennae. We’re a tiny TimeWarnerCable monopoly.

No worries. I’ll do everything via cable modem. My obsession can permit just one cable. But is there some way to bring in just that single cable wire and then wirelessly route it everywhere else? Not exactly. Each TV needs its own set-top box, and the modem needs to be at the same location as one of those boxes.

In the end, I cave in, the floor molding comes up, and the coax goes in. And me, wireless me, ends up with a big fat cable snaking through my entire apartment. My goal of total wirelessness is defeated. But, ultimately, so what?

Sometimes a piece of cable, a USB connection, or a landline is simply a better solution than its wireless counterpart. Just last week, a couple of days before my decision to abandon my Verizon landline was to take effect, I did a radio interview over my home phone. The engineering department’s first requirement for being able to conduct the interview from home instead of going all the way down to the studio in the freezing rain? A landline. They wouldn’t even let me use my 2.4 gig handset.

So at least this wireless fanatic has officially gone into recovery. I hereby promise to approach all the technology and communications challenges that confront me in a transmission-agnostic fashion.

But even this New Year’s resolution can’t stop me from trying to figure out whether all that nasty cable under the floorboards of my new apartment can be used as some sort of antennae extension for my airport, thereby rendering it part of my Wireless Master Plan!